When Fireworks Told Stories


Fireworks over the Brooklyn Bridge, 1883 / Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain

In Europe between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries, fireworks displays were performances that told a story or symbolized real-world battles.


By Livia Gershon


If you like watching fireworks on the Fourth of July, you probably enjoy the colors, patterns, and brilliance of the display. But in Europe between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries, there was another dimension to fireworks, as Suzanne Boorsch writes, looking at prints and drawings commemorating fireworks shows that were part of a display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They were part of dramatic performances that told a story or symbolized real-world battles.

The Chinese used fireworks since at least the ninth century, and by the fourteenth century Europeans had adopted them. Celebrations for the election of Pope John XXIII in 1410 and for the Duke of Milan’s visit to Florence in 1471 featured fireworks shows.

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